NIGHTS IN BERLIN is the fourth of Janice Law's period mysteries featuring the painter Francis Bacon. The first book takes place during the Second World War, and the next two follow chronologically, but NIGHTS IN BERLIN takes us back to Weimar Germany in the 1920's, when Francis is only a teenager - although far from innocent - some years before he begins his art career.
Berlin, in the Weimar era, has a reputation for being wide open. "Life is a cabaret, old chum - " and you better believe it. Francis is sent off in the care of his uncle Lastings, in hopes Lastings will make a man of him, Francis being more than a little gay, but uncle favors a bit of rough, himself. He's also a scoundrel, working the black market, with a sideline as an informer, which turns out to be the part that proves dicey. Lastings is selling secrets to the highest bidder.
In the event, uncle takes it on the lam and leaves Francis to his own devices. Playing fast and louche, Francis lands a job as a hatcheck girl at a drag bar. It's good cover when British Intelligence recruits him - blackmails him, in point of fact - because Uncle Lastings was freelancing for them. Berlin is in political ferment, with Bolsheviks, Freikorps thugs, SA brownshirts (Goebbels just arrived as Nazi party gauleiter), Prussian reactionaries, all stalking each other with violent and criminal results.
Francis is an entertaining guide to these wilder nooks and crannies, his voice alternating between the knowing aside and his native provincialism. There's something to the story of a Boy's Own Adventure, reminiscent of John Buchan, say, or Erskine Childers' RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. I think partly this is the age between the wars, revanchist, tribal hatreds boiling to the surface, but no real sense of the cataclysm about to swallow the Old World entire. It's also a function of our hero's age. Francis is old and wiser, and sadder, in the first three books of the series, whether London or Tangier or the Cote d'Azur, whereas turning the clock back, we see a previous, vanished Berlin, and through a younger pair of eyes. What contributes further to this is an avoidance of historical ironies. Hitler doesn't get a walk-on, or Sally Bowles, either. NIGHTS IN BERLIN is very much of the moment, as Francis inhabits it, and that lends it a sort of wandering air, the kid a little too much in pursuit of sensation for his own good.
The politics are really a side issue. The story is how the experience imprints on Francis. What did he learn? he writes to ask his former nanny. That the most unlikely people can teach us odd and useful things. And with this in mind, he's off to Paris at the end of the book. Both enterprising and alarmingly fey, in some respects, Francis seems like something of a blank slate, yet to be written on. In other words, we're still in the opening pages. The rest are empty. Francis will grow into himself. As the world itself will, passing into the savage 1930's, and then the war years. Pages yet to be written.
I jumped at the chance to read NIGHTS IN BERLIN. Janice had me at the title. I'm crazy about the premise, and the period, of course. I've lived in Berlin, I've read up on it quite a lot, I've written about it myself. I also recently discovered Philip Kerr's fabulous series of historicals, with the wartime German homicide cop Bernie Gunther. There's something endlessly fascinating to me about the city in the past century, with its many changes of clothing, Weimar, the Nazis, Occupation and the Cold War. I think if Berlin didn't actually exist, we'd have to invent it, as a metaphor, and for the purposes of fiction.